Marius Markevicius was a 12-year-old middle schooler in Santa Monica when the 1988 U.S. Olympic basketball team, featuring Danny Manning and David Robinson, were stunned by the Communist-run Soviet Union, 82-76, in the semifinals at Seoul, South Korea.
Markevicius remembers his friends were nearly crying as they talked about the hated Russians – the evil empire – knocking off the superior team of U.S. college stars.
But Markevicius, a first-generation Lithuanian-American, couldn’t help himself. He was excited.
“It wasn’t like I was running around waiving a Soviet flag, but it was much more subtle – just as it was for the Lithuanian players on that team,” Markevicius said. “It was a secret pride.”
Four of the five starters on that Soviet squad were from the tiny, suppressed country of Lithuania — particularly future Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis.
Fast forward an eventful four years: The Berlin Wall comes down, Nelson Mandela was voted in as president of South Africa, and the Soviet Union is broken apart. Lithuania had its freedom.
At the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Lithuania was on its own. It may not have been able to challenge that U.S. “Dream Team” of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird once the amateur rule was relaxed, but it came around to beat Russia in the bronze-medal game. The Lithuanians took the medal stand dressed in Grateful Dead-inspired tie-dyed T-shirts created by New York artist Greg Speirs that the band had sent over, along with some money, to support the liberated basketball stars.
“As a 16-year-old this time, I’m happy Lithuania won the bronze – but it was very tempered,” said Markevicius. “Bronze means third place. In the U.S. we are programmed to believe anything but first is disappointment. But I learned a valuable lesson – sometimes bronze is truly sweeter than gold.”
It’s in that context that Markevicius, who ended up playing basketball at Santa Monica High and went to the UCLA film school after his undergrad work at Cal, resurrects the story in his documentary “The Other Dream Team” (linked here), which Friday begins a run in L.A. (at the Landmark Theatre in Westwood) and New York after critical acclaim during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
In 2009, Markevicius teamed up with another L.A. native, Jon Weinbach, a Beverly Hills High grad, former Wall Street Journal business writer and currently an executive producer at Mandalay Sports Media who had just finished putting together the ESPN “30 For 30″ doc about the Los Angeles Raiders called “Straight Outta L.A..”
The two formed a quick bond and were able to turn Markevicius’ vision onto film in time for the 20th anniversary of the Lithuanian’s ’92 accomplishment.
The co-producers talk about the experience:
Weinbach: “I was at my friend’s son’s first birthday party, and, if you can follow this, the step brother of the wife of my friend was Marius’ best friend from college. We started talking and found out we had similar backgrounds. He asked if I knew much about the ’92 Lithuanian team and I was like, ‘You mean Sabonis and Marciulionis and . . .’ I admittedly am a one-percenter in terms of sports geekery. We followed up a week later and knew we had an idea for a larger story. He was coming from the feature film world and I had the background in documentary interviews and finding footage, so we just went for it. Two months later, we’re in Lithuania doing our first interviews. It really was a leap of faith on both our parts.”
Markevicius: “When people ask when I started thinking about this idea, I think it’s sort of rhetorical because, really, when haven’t I been thinking about it? It’s part of my life. I just thought about all the memories I had as a 100-percent Lithuanian who was born and grew up in L.A., but Russians back then were always these Ivan Drago characters (Dolph Lundgren from the “Rocky” movie series), every bad guy in every movie. I couldn’t explain to my friends really what the Russians were about because I wasn’t such a black-and-white distinction. You’re told to believe that the Soviets had the biggest propaganda machine, but we had our own propaganda here, not nearly as dangerous or on that scale, but sometimes, more silly. But everyone thought a Soviet was an evil Communist because of how they were portrayed in the media and in movies, but the Lithuanians were just part of that team.”
Weinbach: “I remember that time vividly because right around the time of that game (in ’88), Carl Lewis lost in the 100 meters to Ben Johnson. So it was like, ‘First Lewis loses, then the U.S. basketball team loses.’ I grew up in L.A. a massive Lakers fan, but part of the thrill of that U.S. team was Danny Manning just won the national championship at Kansas and he was about to play for the Clippers. Then boom, he gets two fouls in the first half, (coach) John Thompson sits him down. It was so surreal. It was terribly disappointing, and all this anger was building – why don’t we send our professionals. The irony was that the Russian starting five didn’t even have a single Russian player. The four Lithuanians had a point guard from Estonia (Tiit Sokk). And even then, there was so much of a pecking order on that team – the Estonians didn’t like the Lithuanians, they made fun of the Azerbaijanis.
So one of the more interesting things from making the film: Marius and I thought all the Lithuanian players would be remember everything that happened back then as bittersweet, having to play on a team representing the Soviets. ‘Don’t you hate playing for your oppressors?’ But when we asked, they’d say they weren’t, that it was a great honor and it allowed them to travel and see the world where they otherwise couldn’t. Maybe some had some underlying resentment, but when we asked about how the Soviet occupation of Lithuania affected their families, you could see their real emotions come through. Family members were sent to Siberia, things like that. But on a sports level, wearing the Red was great. So getting that narrative out with that kind of conflicted feeling was very interesting.”
Markevicius: “I was celebrating the Lithuanian’s victory (in ’92), but I also really enjoyed the U.S. ‘Dream Team.’ I was a huge Magic Johnson fan. He was my true idol growing up and I was devastated about what happened to him (with retiring from the NBA due to the AIDS virus). It was incredible to see him back out there. But the U.S. really had no competition. The Lithuanians lost to the Unified Team (a post-Soviet squad of smaller countries) in the opening stages and had some ups and down, but it was exciting and intense basketball.”
Weinbach: “It helped to have Americans tell the story. There had been various things already in Lithuania about this time, but it needed to have some distance with time and also some physical distance. We knew that Lithuania is really the only country in the world where basketball is unquestionably the No. 1 sport – and there’s no reason for it. And while this was a movie about the journey of a basketball team, it’s really not about basketball.
Markevicius: “I’ve just got back from a trip to Lithuania for a screening, and there was some quizardy comments: ‘Why didn’t we tell this story?’ You do need distance and an outsider’s perspective to dive into something like this. Maybe that’s more helpful. The reaction they had was, ‘Wow.’ It wasn’t what they expected. Everything thought it would be more of a basketball movie, but they were pleasantly surprised by the depth and independent movement and the prominent Western people talking about it in a positive way.
Weinbach: “We were able to have people like Bill Walton, David Stern and Jim Lampley, who is a real authority on the Olympics. At one point, he tears up when talking about the Lithuanian’s accomplishments in ’92. I think that was a time when he came of age personally and professionally and he was so attached to the political significance. The stories of the Eastern Bloc athletes were powerful for him. He was one of those cynical about the IOC and still had an appreciation for the ideal of amateurism in the Olympics. He was very much against the crassness of the ‘Dream Team’ concept.”
Markevicius: “Having gone to Berkley as an undergrad, I gained a whole new fascination for the Grateful Dead and now I’m a big fan. With Walton, there are some funny clips where he goes off on some riffs. We asked him about what Dead song exemplified the Lithuanian’s story best and he did a whole mash up of five or six songs: ‘We’re truckin’ down the highway and Jerry’s in the back of the bus …'”
Weinbach: “Maybe the coolest way to tie this project up was to find out that, as we were finishing the film, the Toronto Raptors drafted Jonas Valanciunas out of Lithuania – born in 1992 – with their first-round pick (in 2011). Not in our wildest dreams did we think we’ve have the next great Lithuanian kid come through like that.”
Markevicius: “I’m proud of my culture and heritage, but I want people who are struggling for independence in other countries to see this more as an inspiration for something they can accomplish. When you fight for independence, it doesn’t mean things change overnight. Things get worse before they’re better. Maybe there’ll be an Egyptian soccer player who inspires people to see how far you can go in a short amount of time. Lithuania is by no means perfect but it’s become a thriving part of Europe, and it’s up, up and away for them.
“It’s fun to watch the people see this on the big screen. People are clapping and crying – more than just an usual documentary. It’s become a communal experience, and with the Grateful Dead music, that just adds to the fun.”
Weinbach: “I’m really psyched that it’s coming out in L.A. And proud of the work. I was joking to my parents: This is like another bar mitzvah.”
Markevicius: “Having this finally come out in L.A. means everything to me. That was my first goal. I wanted to make it for a Western American audience where people could learn about that history. It was always my goal to have it told here. It was validated with the reaction we got at Sundance because I didn’t know if people would care about a little country like Lithuania or just be turned off by a geographical history lesson, and one told with a lot of subtitles. But the people reacted really well and I have a lot less nerves having it show in L.A. now. The reactions have been universally positive. I’ve yet to have a bad screening. We’ve got it coming soon in 20 markets, depending on how the box office does in this first weekend. I’ve had a few more cities express interest in having it. I hope this is just kind of the beginning.”